Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Opera in Early 18th Century London

by Lucy May Lennox

Today opera has an (undeserved) reputation for being stuffy and dull, with the stereotypical image of a fat woman shrieking in a horned helmet. Opera in Georgian London was very different—it was the equivalent of our big budget superhero movies today, all about spectacle and popular entertainment.

The style of opera popular throughout Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century is called opera seria. Opera seria originated in Italy, which is why operas composed and performed in England were in the Italian language, and the most celebrated singers were from Italy. Unlike later opera styles, opera seria features solos almost exclusively; there is very little choral or ensemble singing. There are only a few duets, usually performed between lovers to highlight their emotional connection. The performance was very stylized, not intended to be naturalistic, and the singers showed their skill through vocal ornamentation rather than emotional expression. The plots were heroic and/or tragic, borrowed from Greek and Roman mythology, and the stagecraft featured all kinds of spectacles such as flying horses, mythological creatures, and magic. In contrast to performances in Italy, opera seria in London was popular entertainment for high and low alike, and the performances tended to be much more raucous.

Caricature of Handel opera seria Flavio featuring castrato Senesino
on the left and soprano Francesca Cuzzoni center.

London opera in the early eighteenth century is synonymous with the composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Although Handel is best remembered today for his oratorios, particularly the Messiah (1742), he made his name in London in opera seria. Born in what is now Germany, Handel studied opera in Italy before moving to London in 1712. Over the course of his career, he composed forty-two operas, most of which were produced by the Haymarket Theater and the Theater Royal, Covent Garden. His operas were dramatic spectacles including dance as well as virtuoso singing, and drove the craze in London for opera seria. Today his best known aria is “Ombra mai fu” from Serse (Xerxes, 1738), written for castrato voice.

Handel composed oratorios throughout his career as well, but the most famous of these he composed in the 1730s and 1740s. In part he turned to oratorios in reaction to changing tastes in London, as the exotic appeal of opera seria waned. In contrast to opera seria, which was performed in Italian, most of Handel’s oratorios were composed in English. While the plots of opera seria were taken from classical antiquity, the text of the oratorios came from the King James Bible. In fact, Handel first wanted to stage bible stories as operas, but the Bishop of London would not allow it. Performing scenes from the bible in Covent Garden theaters, associated with prostitution, was considered blasphemous. Bible stories should only be performed in a church. Oratorio, in which the singers did not wear costumes or act out the scenes, but stood on stage beside the orchestra, was a compromise between theatrical and church music, and allowed the religious theme to be performed in a secular setting. Several of these oratorios were conducted by John Stanley, a blind composer and organist who worked closely with Handel for many years.

Portrait of Farinelli
The most popular voice type in opera seria was the castrato, a man castrated before puberty so he maintained a soprano range into adulthood. The practice of creating and training castrati was limited to Italy, although they performed all over Europe. The most popular castrato in London was Farinelli (1705-1782). There was a film about him made in 1994, although it is not very biographically accurate. The popularity of Farinelli and other castrati in London was intense but brief, peaking in the 1720s-1730s. There was an equally intense backlash against castrati, not only because they challenged gender norms, but because they were not English. Male social clubs called beef-steak societies were one source of this backlash. In particular the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks was founded in 1735 by John Rich, the manager of the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, as a means of expressing a British masculine identity. Rich was also the producer of the Beggar’s Opera (1728), written by John Gay as a parody of opera seria and the style popularized by Handel. Some of this xenophobic sentiment can be seen in the broadside “London” penned by beefsteak society member Henry Carey:
There your English actor goes, with many a hungry belly
While heaps of gold are laid, God wot! on Signor Farinelli
What did a castrato performance sound like? There’s no way to know exactly. Castration not only affected the vocal cords, but the entire physical development. Castrati had elongated limbs and large barrel chests, which gave them tremendous lung capacity and vocal power. Musically, their high voices symbolized virtue and purity, but certainly part of the appeal for audiences was the spectacle of a man with an almost inhuman high voice. After the castrati disappeared, revivals of opera seria tended to use female singers in their place through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but lately there has been a trend for male countertenors to reclaim these roles.

Although men with high voices were the superstars of the era, there were women opera stars as well. One of the biggest stars in London was Anna Maria Strada del Pò (1719-1741) who was brought from Italy by Handel and performed the soprano lead in many of his operas. While she was celebrated for her fine vocal technique, she was also mocked for her appearance, particularly for inelegant facial expressions as she sang. Charles Burney noted that, “she had so little of a Venus in her appearance, that she was usually called the Pig.”

Portrait of Anna Maria Strada

Not all the prima donna were Italian. Kitty Clive (1711-1785), who was from Ireland, was another major star of the era. While Kitty Clive sang the role of Delila in Handel’s oratorio Samson (1743), she was best known for her comedic roles in David Garrick’s company. Likewise, Lavinia Fenton (1708-1760) was famous as a singer and comic actress, originating the role of Polly Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera (1728). The English singer Susannah Cibber (1714-1766), a contralto, sang many male roles in Handel’s oratorios. She was praised for her expressivity in tragic roles, although her vocal technique was not considered as polished as that of Italian singers.

Scene from The Beggar’s Opera, by William Hogarth. Lavinia Fenton as Polly Peachum is in
the center, and the Duke of Bolton is in the box to the right. Note the audience members sitting on
 the stage, talking during the performance.

Handel also innovated the inclusion of extensive dance scenes in opera seria, as another form of titillating spectacle. One of the most famous (or infamous) dancers was Marie Sallé (1707-1756), a French ballerina born to a family of circus acrobats. John Rich brought her to the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, where she appeared in several of Handel’s operas. She was known for dancing in loosely-fitting, revealing costumes, to the scandalized delight of audiences. She was also rumored to have female lovers, and was not the only performer to do so (for example, actress Elizabeth Ashe, the lover of Caroline, Countess of Harrington).

Attending a Covent Garden opera performance in the early eighteenth century was a very different experience than today. Opera performances only occurred at certain times of year, and when the season was over, there was no way to hear the same performances again. In an age of recorded music, we tend to forget how precious and rare live performance could be.

Opera performances could stretch on for four hours or more, although audiences might come and go as they pleased. Before the overture, there were usually three pieces played to entertain the crowd as they arrived at five o’clock to secure seats until the show began at six o’clock. Called the First, Second, and Third Music, these might be instrumental pieces or solos by up and coming singers, followed by a prolog or speech by the manager. Likewise, during the intermission (intermezzo or entr’acte), there would be additional performances as the sets and costumes were changed.

Audiences were loud and disruptive. A Trip Through the Town (1735) describes the theater audience thus: “They talk continually no matter of what, for they talk only to be taken notice of, for which reason they raise their voices to be taken notice of by those who pass by.”

Riot at the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, 1763
over increased ticket prices.
There was very little separation between the audience and the players. Although the interior of the theater was similar to theaters today, there was no curtain. The boxes, or balcony seats along the edge of the theater, extended alongside the stage. The wealthiest patrons were allowed to have seats right on the stage. Some Covent Garden theaters had rows of spikes along the proscenium to prevent overly amorous or critical audience members from leaping onto the stage during a performance.

Audiences might shout at the players or throw rotten fruit if they did not like a performance. Riots were not uncommon. Burford writes,
In 1738, after a riot in the Haymarket Theater in protest at the appearance of some French players, it was enacted that the public had a legal right to manifest their dislike of a play or the actors. In 1744 there was a riot at Drury Lane Theater over contemplated rises for admission. In another fracas in 1755 there was a free fight with gallants jumping from the boxes into the pit, their swords being drawn and blood being shed while the women screamed when the mob tore up scenery and smashed up the seats.
Audiences might also take sides in a rivalry between singers, booing the rival and cheering their favorite loudly, as happened with Handel’s singers Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bourdoni. The two women even fought each other on stage. Handel threatened to throw Cuzzoni out a window when she refused to sing an aria during rehearsals.

All this meant that the life of an opera star was precarious indeed, especially for women. The actresses were all assumed to be prostitutes. The sad fact is that many were forced to become the mistress of a wealthy patron or engage in outright prostitution because the wages were so low. Many of the celebrated divas died alone and penniless, as happened to La Strada. Lavinia Fenton, on the other hand, married her much older lover the Duke of Bolton after the death of his first wife, and became a duchess.

Susannah Cibber’s personal life also erupted in scandal. She married actor Theophilus Cibber, son of playwright Colley Cibber, but she was far more famous and rich than her husband. As all of a wife’s assets belonged solely to the husband, she attempted to circumvent this law by placing her money in trust, but he managed to spend it all anyway. To pay the bills, they took in a tenant named William Sloper, which led to an affair that twice landed all three in court, with competing claims that Cibber forced Susannah at gunpoint to have sex with Sloper, or that she fell in love with Sloper and they slept together while a spy observed them from a closet. Nevertheless, she continued to perform through this scandal, which only increased her popularity.

Marie Sallé and Lavinia Fenton used their status to improve the working conditions and treatment of women on stage. Clive campaigned publicly for better pay for actresses, and for separating the career of actress from prostitution. She also wrote several short plays satirizing the poor treatment of actresses.

There have been some recent revivals of opera seria that attempt to capture the flavor of the era. This excerpt of a German production of Serse, with the cross-dressed singers arguing with the conductor, gives us a small taste of what it might have been like to attend the opera in the eighteenth century.

Selected sources:

Burford, E. J. Wits, Wenchers and Wantons: London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century. Robert Hale: London, 1990.

Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Parker, Roger, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Schœlcher, Victor. The Life of Handel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.


Lucy May Lennox is the author of The Adventures of Tom Finch, Gentleman, a novel set in the opera world of eighteenth century London.

London, 1735. Tom Finch, composer and conductor, approaches life with boundless good cheer and resilience, despite his blindness. Join Tom for a picaresque romp through high and low Georgian society among rakes, rovers, thieving whores and demi-reps, highway robbers, bigamists, and duelists, bisexual opera divas, castrati, mollies, and cross-dressers, lecherous aristocrats, and headstrong ladies. This meticulously researched, witty and lively tale overturns stereotypes about disability and revels in the spectacle and excitement of 18th century opera.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! You really conveyed the excitement to be found in the theater of that time. It's difficult, but useful to remember back then, and for a couple of centuries more, everything in the way of plays and music had to be directly live steaming a world away! lol


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